Lowell Week in Review: February 4, 2018

artist rendering from Merrimack Street with Cabot to the right.

The Union Apartments

The Lowell Planning Board meets this Monday (February 5, 2018) at 6:30 pm in the City Council chambers. Among the items on the agenda is “Preliminary Site Plan Application for 650 Merrimack Street” also known as The Union Apartments. The city’s website has nine documents about the project available, and the Planning Board meeting will be televised and streamed on LTC channel 99.

I mentioned this proposal last week, writing:

The former Jeanne d’Arc Credit Union headquarters at the corner of Merrimack, Cabot and Market Streets is back with another application for a private dormitory. The proposal, by Union Lowell LLC, calls for a new 6-story building, consisting of 163 dormitory units containing 466 bedrooms. The developer will provide a total of 263 parking spaces: 93 onsite; 120 at the Transfiguration Church; and 50 at the Ayotte Garage. The developer will also contribute $800,000 to a proposed (?) neighborhood parking facility.

The proposal was also mentioned at Tuesday’s council meeting with several councilors expressing their opposition to the project.

Also speaking Tuesday in opposition to the project was Patricia Coffey, a representative of UMass Lowell. Speaking for the University, Coffey stated that there is not the demand in Lowell for this type of private dormitory. She cited the difficulty the newly constructed Edge Merrimack River private dormitory (across Fr. Morissette Boulevard from Lowell High) is having in leasing its units. She also said that UMass Lowell is filling fewer dormitory beds than projected, mostly because students lack the money to pay for room and board.

Google images, parcel in center, bordered by Merrimack (above), Cabot (left), and Market (below).

The first private dormitory in Lowell, Edge Merrimack River, which opened for business last fall, has an attractive website that proclaims it is now leasing for 2018-2019. It also promotes the great river views of the Merrimack, fully furnished apartments, high speed Wi-Fi, onsite community clubhouse and fitness center, and study rooms on every floor. When Edge first arrived in Lowell, it cited its success with similar developments in North Carolina (at Wake Forest) and in Worcester, Massachusetts (Edge at Union Station). I wrote about the Edge project (then called “Vision”) back on May 14, 2016 and on July 17, 2016 and the Sun had a “first look at the new dorm” article by Rick Sobey about Edge on July 17, 2017.

You would think that with the strong and vocal opposition of the Acre neighborhood, UMass Lowell, and several city councilors, this new project, Union Apartments, would not stand much of a chance, especially since it’s already been rejected once (rather, the applicant withdrew it once it became clear that the planning board was about to defeat it – that gave it the option of resubmitting the proposal which is what is happening now). But the fact that it’s back again in the face of all of that opposition suggests that this type of private dormitory arrangement must be a lucrative undertaking.

It will be interesting to see what happens at the Planning Board on Monday night. It will also be interesting to see who else, and what other parcels, jump on board the private dormitory train in Lowell.

Mayor Bill Samaras addressing Lowell Sustainability Fair

Sustainability in Lowell

About 75 people gathered in the LTC Gallery Thursday night for a community discussion of sustainability efforts in Lowell. Co-hosted by Lowell Telecommunications and the Lowell Sustainability Council, the event brought together a number of groups that are involved in sustainability to share ideas and promote collaboration.

Mayor Bill Samaras hit the perfect note when addressing the group. He explained that when he was first elected to the city council more than four years ago, he began speaking in favor of clean energy and the importance of safeguarding the environment at the city level. The response from many of his longtime Lowell resident-supporters was something like, “Bill, focus on something important, like the tax rate.”

Samaras said the response is much different today. More and more people have seen the sustainability light, and support programs and policies that support it. Personally, Samaras says everytime he is with his grandchildren, he is reminded that his efforts to safeguard the environment today will make the world a better place for them tomorrow.

Speaking directly to those in attendance who devote countless hours to this cause, Samaras said “You are doing important work. It may feel as though politicians aren’t listening, but you have to remember that in politics, you can’t satisfy everyone all of the time. Because of that, it’s important to always do the right thing, and with your efforts on behalf of the environment, you are doing the right thing. You can help by providing us with information. People are listening now. Keep talking. You’ll win them over.”

Jay Mason, the chair of the city’s Sustainability Council, kicked off the speaking portion of the event by reminding everyone of the dire consequences of a planet that is rapidly heating. He said that one of the objectives of the gathering was to de-silo their efforts. He explained that organizations have a tendency to do their own things without regard to other groups pursuing similar objectives (that is, each operates within its own silo). He said that bringing these groups together increased the opportunities for collaboration. “We’re here to solve a problem; we have a better chance of doing that when we work collectively.”

Among the groups participating were the city of Lowell; UMass Lowell’s office of sustainability; the Sierra Club of Massachusetts, 350 Mass; Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust; Lowell Bike Coalition; Mill City Grows; DIY Lowell; the Merrimack River Watershed Council; and several other groups.

State Senator Eileen Donoghue addressing Lowell Democratic Caucus

Democracy in Lowell

The Lowell Democratic City Committee held its 2018 caucus yesterday at Lowell High’s Freshmen Academy cafeteria. About 200 people attended. The purpose of this caucus was to select delegates to attend the 2018 Massachusetts Democratic Convention which will be held on June 1 and 2, 2018 at Worcester’s DCU Center.

Judith Durant, chair of the Lowell Democratic City Committee, recently wrote a post on the committee’s website explaining the significance of the caucus and how it works. Yesterday was a busy day caucus-wise, with Democrats also gathering in Tewksbury, Wilmington, Tyngsborough and Carlisle. Next Saturday, Dracut and Dunstable will meet. Other area Democratic caucuses include Westford on Thursday, February 15; Billerica on Saturday, February 24; and Chelmsford on Thursday, March 1. For further information about other caucuses and the State Democratic Convention, check out the website of the Massachusetts Democratic Party.

Downtown Fitchburg

Fitchburg Gets a Virtual Newsroom

On Friday, the Boston Business Journal reported that the Fitchburg Sentinel & Enterprise (what you might call a sister newspaper of the Lowell Sun) was closing its physical office space in the city of Fitchburg and would henceforth rely on a “virtual newsroom.” The Sun and the Sentinel & Enterprise have been sharing reporters for some time (and an editor, too – the BBJ reports that Jim Campanini is the editor of both the Sun and the Fitchburg paper).

About ten years ago, the term “backpack journalism” became popular. The idea was with the miniaturization of cameras and computers, a single individual with a backpack full of equipment could be a comprehensive and effective reporter of the news. It seems like that’s what Fitchburg is going to get. It will be interesting to see how it works out.

Boys & Girls Club musical duo entertaining crowd at art competition

Boys & Girls Club of Greater Lowell Regional Art Competition

Congratulations to the Boys & Girls Club of Greater Lowell for being the host of the Northeast Regional Art Competition of the Boys & Girls Clubs of America. The contest was held yesterday at Western Ave Studios’ Onyx Room. Winning entries from clubs in Massachusetts, Connecticut, Maine, New York, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Rhode Island were featured. Hundreds of works of art were presented at the exhibit which also featured refreshments and live music. The winners of various categories of this regional contest in Lowell will proceed to the national competition to be held in San Diego, I believe.

Barnes & Noble Supports Pollard Library

The Barnes & Noble store at 235 Daniel Webster Highway in Nashua is pitching in to help raise money for the Pollard Memorial Library so that some of the books damaged by the burst pipe of several weeks ago can be salvaged or replaced.

B&N has set aside Saturday, February 17, 2018 as a “bookfair” day to benefit the Pollard Memorial Library. Anyone who purchases a book at the store or online that day and continuing until February 22 and who uses the corresponding Bookfair ID number (which is 12323696) will have a portion of the amount paid for the book donated to the Pollard Memorial Library.

Please make an effort to come to the Barnes & Noble store that Saturday (February 17, 2018). I’ll be there from noon to 1 pm to do a signing of my Legendary Locals of Lowell and Images of Modern America Lowell books which are both carried by the store. Other Lowell people and library employees will be around the store that day too, and plenty of Lowell-related books in B&N’s inventory will be available for sale. So let’s turn it into a Lowell book party and help support the library.

City Council Subcommittees

Here’s a list of which councilors have been assigned to which subcommittees. The subcommittee chair is in all caps, followed by the subcommittee members in lower case.

Arts & Culture
CIRILLO, Mercier, Kennedy

Auditor & Clerk Oversight & Personnel
CONWAY, Elliott, Milinazzo

Downtown Redevelopment
MILINAZZO, Mercier, Kennedy

Economic Development
KENNEDY, Milinazzo, Nuon

Education Partnerships
KENNEDY, Leahy, Conway

Environment & Flood Issues
CIRILLO, Elliott, Kennedy

Finance
ELLIOTT, Milinazzo, Nuon

Housing
MILINAZZO, Elliott, Mercier

Municipal Facilities
LEAHY, Kennedy, Cirillo

Neighborhoods
CIRILLO, Leahy, Nuon

Parks & Recreation
MERCIER, Conway, Leahy

Public Safety
NUON, Leahy, Milinazzo

Rules
ELLIOTT, Mercier, Conway

Substance Abuse
MERCIER, Nuon, Conway

Technology & Utilities
LEAHY, Cirillo, Elliott

Transportation
ELLIOTT, Conway, Cirillo

Youth Services
CONWAY, Mercier, Cirillo

Zoning
MILINAZZO, Nuon, Kennedy

Ad-Hoc Election Laws
NUON, Leahy, Kennedy

Northern Middlesex Council of Governments representative: Kennedy

CTI Representatives: Mercier & Elliott

4 Responses to Lowell Week in Review: February 4, 2018

  1. Dave Ouellette says:

    The Union story reads too positive —-
    They are not providing those 263 parking spots they are proposing those parking spots
    First out of the 93 in the Dorm they need a waiver on the undersized spots
    Then the proposed parking at the Greek church needs a waiver on the distance and is shared parking the church is not giving the lot to them 100% of the time
    They need another waiver because of distance for the Ayotte garage way to far again so they are only proposing 263 spots, they really only have 93 and some of those are undersized
    There is no real proposed parking garage at the moment it is only being said to make this sound like it’s possible. The only way a garage can be constructed in the spots they are talking is by eminent domain
    The Other private dorm the EDGE is already leasing to residents not going to college
    If a building that size leases units to the public it changes all the numbers for parking
    The church representatives at a meeting already said if the UNION rents to the public they would not continue the lease agreement where does that leave our great Acre Neighborhood already with a very dense population and limited parking
    Thank you
    David Ouellette

  2. Maxine says:

    An portion of remarks I made at the July planning board meeting regarding the private dorm project.

    –When I was an undergrad in the early 70’s Jane Jacobs Life and Death of Great American Cities was required reading that shaped my understanding of what makes a healthy, viable neighborhood. One thing that has stuck with me over the years is one of her comments on the street which I offer for your consideration.

    Jacobs said . . . There must be eyes upon the street, eyes belonging to those we might call the natural proprietors of the street. The buildings on a street equipped to handle strangers and to insure the safety of both residents and strangers must be oriented to the street. They cannot turn their backs or blank sides on it and leave it blind.

    Looking at the elevations provided of the project it is pretty clear that this 6 story monolith is indeed leaving Cabot and Market Streets blind. In the narrative the developer pays lip service to many of the plans for this area but fails to show a meaningful understanding of the needs of the neighborhood. The open spaces proposed for this project are above the street and inaccessible to the public.

    When I call the proposed project a monolith, that is exactly what it is. With a majority of housing in the neighborhood 3 stories or less this project doesn’t acknowledge the character of the area. Place a 6 story building with 466 residents across from Archembault towers and North Common Village and density in the neighborhood will sky rocket.

    Looking at the block data from the 2010 census an area approximately a 10th of a square mile was mapped out and a simple calculation indicates a population density the equivalent of ~21,000 persons per square mile, while the population density of the city as a whole is ~8000 persons per square mile . . . and the calculation didn’t take into account the residents of projects built after 2010 (Unity Place, St. Joseph’s) . . . add in the proposed project and density hits ~ 26,000 persons per square mile . . . which means that this portion of the Acre will beat Back Centrals 23,600 persons per square mile. . . . not a distinction that anyone in the Acre is looking for!

    Looking at density, one moves to looking at parking. The developer contends that the lack of parking provided in this project will result in fewer parking spaces needed and on several occasions has referred to their private dorm in Durham NH as an example. Using google earth I looked at the location of that project . . . indeed there is little or no parking visible at that project, however, a strip mall with a Hannafords, Rite Aid, etc is located approximately 250 feet behind that project and the project is on the edge of the CBD. As far as I can tell from the aerial imagery, the other projects owned by this developer in Durham have significant amounts of parking. The Market Basket on Broadway is approximately half a mile away from the proposed project, the CVS on Merrimack Street more than half a mile. One thing I learned spending 20 years car less in Boston is that one locates such that essentials are less than half a mile from home. While the developer glosses over proximity to lifestyle maintenance necessities (grocery, drugstore, etc) this is a real problem that is faced every day by residents of the area and one that will not as the developer claims be resolved by students buying groceries through Peapod. —

    The tweaks that the developer has made to parking are not acceptable . . . they are now claiming 263 parking spots . . . again only 93 on site, 50 at the Ayotte despite the City Council rejecting the ordinance changing the distance wording on dorms and 120 at Transfiguration Church . . . they have a 5 year lease with the Church (have to leave almost half the spaces free on Sunday mornings . . . and require dimensional relief since the church lot doesn’t meet existing ordinance.) Of the 93 spots on site, 6 are dedicated to UML carpool sticker holders, 3 for the ‘retail’ space, 4 handicap . . . and no provision for employee parking.

  3. Brian says:

    The JDCU Union Apartments is a bad project. It’s too big and turns its back to Market St. Opponents clearly love the Acre but using “not enough parking” as the basis for opposition is wrong. Baking parking into new development projects causes more negative outcomes overall than not supplying enough parking.

    Since Lowell mandates minimum parking requirements developers have to build bigger buildings to recoup the cost of providing all that parking. This drives up rents for Acre residents.

    It means the look and orientation of the building has to be made to fit parking instead of fitting the character of the Acre. Access to onsite parking means curb cuts through the sidewalk where Acre pedestrians go about their business.

    Mandating parking uses up valuable land that could instead be ground floor shops and give Acre residents more opportunity to work where they live. Parking reduces revenue for the city compared to business or residential use. Money that could be used for fire, police, or fixing our schools.

    Providing parking also contributes to congestion and is horrible for the environment.

    Steve Joncas was quoted in the paper that they looked at a mixed-use building but didn’t want to compete with the CBA for scarce state subsidies. If parking weren’t required costs would plummet and state subsidies wouldn’t potentially be necessary.

    Perhaps looking to Lowell’s past would make sense. I’d wager they wouldn’t have proposed one building on the parcel. They would’ve built small ground floor shops at street level with 2-3 stories of housing or office space above. The shops would’ve faced Merrimack and Market St with an alley in between to Cabot St for deliveries, trash removal etc.

    This clearly worked in the past and would evenly enhance both Merrimack and Market St. 2-3 upper floors of housing would take pressure off rising rents due to UML’s growth, while not overwhelming the Acre as with Union’s 406 beds.

    In the end it’s about what we value as people, a neighborhood, a city. If JDCU could a find a developer or two interested in what I’m proposing would Acre activists and city politicians get on board? Or would they choose parking?

  4. Brian says:

    Moreover, not having a parking permit policy for neighborhood on-street parking breeds chaos and brings scorn to any new development proposal. Dense neighborhoods should offer parking permits, with homeowners getting first crack at them and the balance of them sold to renters.

    Coupled with eliminating off-street minimum parking requirements developers could build appropriately sized buildings with less opposition from neighbors.

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